Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Slovakia opts to stay on the wrong side of history with same-sex marriage ban

How much energy must one expend to live in crippling fear of those two women making out on a bench in the square, or those two guys holding hands on the street? How must the world look to those fearful, quivering, small-minded people who cling tightly to outdated, narrow, hate-fueled notions of love, marriage and family? How frighteningly insecure in one's manhood does one have to be to completely write off his own son or daughter for being gay? How much bile has to ooze from one's glands to believe with total conviction that letting Petra and Katka marry and raise a family together fosters a culture of death that will invoke the wrath of God?

If you know, please tell me, because I sure as hell don't. But it seems a lot of folks in this sadly homophobic country do, and this is a maddening thing to contemplate.

I know, I know - homophobia exists everywhere, and there's no shortage of it in my own native US. But at least I'm from the liberal-hippie-vegetable-eating-diversity-embracing progressive bubble that is the San Francisco Bay Area, where in most places a sense of tolerance prevails. Still, it's deeply frustrating to see Slovakia, the country which I currently call home, where my wife is from, and where her family resides, opt to stay on the wrong side of history, to remain stuck in an increasingly bygone era when it was deemed OK to look the other way when dad clobbered his son with a tire iron for coming out. 

Tilting towards Russia

Slovakia, like most other countries of central and eastern Europe which spent much of the 20th century under the iron grip of Soviet rule, has since proven to be pretty lunkheaded when it comes to human rights and minorities. What makes Slovakia especially interesting, though, is how it straddles the line between east and west, with one very tentative foot in western Europe, with those countries' relatively progressive, forward-thinking, pot-tolerating, bicycle-lane-painting directives (though Slovakia is a ways off from any of these things), and the other foot stuck in the Soviet past, marked by a backwards and blatant disregard for civil rights, democracy, the rule of law, etc.

While most EU and western European states have adopted or are working toward policies that are inclusive towards LGBT communities, uber conservative Russia has been running feverishly in the other direction, and in 2013 it adopted controversial and highly discriminatory laws targeting its LGBT population. While LGBT rights do still face strong opposition in parts of western Europe, in Russia homophobia is so rampant and steeped in such fierce religious ignorance that it's gotta feel like stepping back into the middle ages.

Slovakia could go either way, and unfortunately it recently made a rightward lurch towards Russian-style intolerance. 

In early June the Slovak Parliament essentially outlawed same-sex marriage when it voted to insert a provision in the constitution that defines marriage specifically as a unique bond between a man and a woman. Same-sex couples were already not allowed to marry and aren't eligible for domestic partnerships (nor can they adopt children), but this provision further cements a discriminatory same-sex marriage ban into the law of the land.

So how bad is the homophobia in Slovakia? Kind of bad. While things are infinitely more dire in, say, Uganda, where being gay can land you in prison or worse, the prevailing attitudes towards LGBT folks in Slovakia are still fairly medieval. A recent poll shows that 50.8% percent of the population absolutely supports the constitutional provision banning same-sex marriage, while 30% somewhat agrees with it. Only 9% somewhat disagree with it, and a mere 4.4 percent strongly oppose it.

Contrast that with the Netherlands, where same-sex marriage has 82% support, or Denmark, where 69% of the population supports it. Same-sex marriage even has 52% support among the population of Slovakia's former roommate, the Czech Republic. 

And check out this page, with a map showing which European countries allow same-sex marriage and/or registered same-sex domestic partnerships, and which don't. Notice how, with the exception of Italy, the west looks pretty darn progressive on this issue, while the further east you go, the worse it gets.

Local yocals

Even more discouraging are the sickening views one encounters when talking to average people here about homosexuality. Sadly, the collective mentality seems to be stuck in the 1950s, and conversations about homosexuality regularly and quickly devolve into the sort of vulgar, juvenile rants that you'd expect from horribly ill-informed 11-year-olds, which throws LGBT rights supporters like us into an eye-rolling fit of exasperation and despair.

Terezia and I know a few gay people here whose fathers have completely disowned them. This is actually a common problem, especially for gay men. We have also spoken to guys who admitted openly that they'd do a range of unspeakable things if they discovered their son was gay. Most say they would cut their son out of their lives completely, while one went so far as to say he'd take his son outside and shoot him. A woman we spoke to about the gay pride parade said, incredulously, "Why do they need a parade? If they're going to be that way, why can't they just keep it to themselves?"

A few gay people we know here in Bratislava say they are reluctant to hold hands in public or engage in any PDA out of concern for their safety. If fear of ostracism and abuse is that prevalent in the nation's capital, by far Slovakia's biggest city, I can only imagine how awful it must be out in the sticks.

You hear stuff like this all the time. Part of the problem is that many older people will tell you that during communism homosexuality didn't exist (sounding a bit like leaders of Iran and other bastions of religious conservatism), and some seem to think it's a symptom of decadent, western values introduced after 1989. Now statistically, that clearly wasn't the case, but being gay was apparently so stigmatized under communism, and the government was so repressive, that gay communities had to be super cautious and discreet. 

What's fueling the hate?

Slovakia is intensely catholic, almost as much as Poland. And it's the catholics/christians (and other weirdos on the far right) who have been waging an all-out, well-funded war against the LGBT community here. In September 2013, several catholic groups organized a big pro-life rally in KoŇ°ice,  Slovakia's second biggest city, which also had a strong anti-gay marriage theme. It was estimated that some 60,000 people attended, while the 2013 gay pride march in Bratislava that same weekend drew less than 1,000. It should be noted that the groups behind the pro-life/anti-gay marriage rally poured obscene amounts of money and energy into it, even organizing buses to cart people in from all over Slovakia, as well as from neighboring countries. The church's influence is massive in Slovakia, and a directive went out to catholic priests all across the country to encourage their congregations to attend the rally.

And this provision doesn't even go far enough for the religious right. One organization is trying to get a country-wide referendum on the ballot to ban gay marriage, because they believe the provision isn't hateful enough. 

Politicians on both the left and the right are acutely aware of how religious this country is, and nearly all of them play into it to win votes. In fact, this provision was part of a strange alliance between a conservative christian party, the KDH, and the ruling Smer party, which claims to be left wing/socialist.

I always bristle when I hear Robert Fico's Smer party described as left wing. As I've said in previous posts, Smer is left wing in only a very narrow, outdated, Soviet-style economic sense. It remains pretty much oblivious or indifferent to all other areas that have come to define left-wing liberalism today, and is staunchly conservative on social issues. Whereas in the west, being left wing means championing progressive values, like standing up for civil and human rights, defending persecuted or marginalized minorities, etc., it seems central and eastern European countries still haven't grasped this concept, and their left wing parties are clinging to this antiquated Soviet-style notion of what it means to be left wing.

Smer has a fairly appalling human rights record and a history of making inappropriate and downright hostile public remarks towards Slovakia's few minority populations, mainly the Roma and Hungarians. There is nothing liberal or progressive about Smer, and the fact that they signed on to this traditional marriage provision in lockstep without any debate within the party is no surprise.

This kind of pus-brained indifference to diversity has its roots in communism. Firstly, Soviet-style communism had no regard for things like human rights, diversity, etc. But also, the borders to these countries under Soviet influence were tightly sealed, and each state became closed off and sheltered, and stiflingly homogenous, 
ethnically and culturally, as a result. This meant you had no serious influx of immigrants, of other cultures or lifestyles. Slovakia remains relatively sheltered to this day, primarily because it fails to attract any meaningful number of immigrants from other countries, since opportunities here are few and far between. This means Slovakia is still overwhelmingly white and Slovak (which is very disconcerting to this Bay Area native), which in turn means that many Slovaks just aren't accustomed or open to lifestyles or views that differ significantly from their own.

But while Smer-styled socialism remains rooted in the past, some of the socialists in the rest of Europe have kept up with modern day progressive causes, and Hannes Swoboda, the president of the Socialists and Democratic Group in the European Parliament, was quoted earlier this spring as saying, “We are greatly concerned by recent developments in several EU member countries, including Slovakia, where the rights of LGBTI people are under attack. Locking the definition of marriage in the constitution as a union between a man and a woman – under pressure from far-right and religious groups – would significantly reduce the possibilities for future governments to join the many other European countries where marriages between men or women are perfectly legal and enjoy equal rights. We, the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, reiterate our unwavering commitment to inclusion and equal rights for everyone.”

Definitely a rebuke to Smer - but not that Fico and Smer would really give a shit, as they've often been tone deaf when it comes to EU-wide issues which they don't think directly affect Slovakia.

It seems the most vocal opponents of the same-sex marriage ban in Slovakia are various NGOs and civil rights activists. They are usually quoted in the media on stories like this, arguing that people are being discriminated against, that all people should be allowed the same rights, etc., but I don't get the impression that the general public pays much attention to them. A group of protesters that turned out in Bratislava on the day that parliament discussed the law was quite small, described in the media as numbering in the dozens.

Bad education?

At any rate, I suspect some of this may also have to do with the lousy quality of education in some central and eastern European countries. I'm not talking about math, science, language, etc. for which people here seem to have a solid foundation with the basics. I'm talking about how, by all accounts, Slovak schools seem not to teach their students how to think critically, how to look at issues from several viewpoints and not just stubbornly stick to one's own knee-jerk opinions. I'm also talking about how a solid humanities or liberal arts education can expand one's views. When I was in school I had to analyze countless novels and films whose messages or themes were often, in one way or another, about embracing diversity. Of course, I was brought up in an environment where liberal-hippie-tofu-fueled views prevailed, but even if my parents had been intolerant hicks, at least I'd have still been exposed to books that detail the struggles of various minorities, the impoverished, the disadvantaged, etc. I don't get the sense that this is really valued in education here.

Any reason for optimism?

Bratislava's 2013 Gay Pride march

So, this is indeed a deeply frustrating setback, and Slovakia now runs the risk of being left behind like a colony of bigoted, provincial, socially leperitic dimwits by its more progressive-minded neighbors to the west. 

Of course, you could say that it's unreasonable to expect Slovakia and other central/eastern European countries to come around on this issue right now - they got a late start, after all. But at the same time, the far right, in their desperation, could do a fair amount of damage before any major shift in society's views occurs. 
Either way, it's going to take time and effort to get Slovakia up to speed. 

But on an optimistic note, one of my favorite columnists, Mark Morford, would probably say that we can view this constitutional provision as an act of sheer panic and desperation, the last putrid gasp of a dying culture of hate that can see the rainbow colored writing on the wall; that it's only a matter of time before Jano can come out of the closet without fear of getting beat up by dad, or when Janka can bring her new girlfriend home to meet the parents sans any kitchen table awkwardness, or Petra and Katka can marry and raise a family without being lumped in with Satan. This is happening in the EU, it's happening in the US, and it scares the bejesus out of the homophobes and the religious right, who will inflict whatever damage they can while flailing helplessly and inevitably into irrelevance.

When an anti same-sex marriage law was approved in a popular vote in California several years ago, I was obviously pretty disillusioned. But even in the US the tide has been turning - and fast - with a majority of millennials hitting voting age who have no beef with LGBT rights, seeing it as a non-issue, and the country's more enlightened states are legalizing same-sex marriage one by one. While I admit that America still has a long way to go (I'm looking at you Texas), a shocking amount of progress has been made in a mere decade. I can only hope that a similar growing acceptance of LGBT folks takes hold here in Slovakia.

Given that Slovakia already has one foot in the EU, I'd like to think that the more enlightened view will eventually win out and pull the country fully into more progressive pastures. Hopefully this is just a hiccup, and eventually members of some future parliament will struggle to see what the big deal was and strike the provision from the constitution. But until then, the LGBT community and rights activists here definitely have their work cut out for them. 

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